Laura CliffordWine connoisseur and merchant Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman) is in a rut. His Paris-based shop has few customers and, being a Brit, he is spurned by the snobbish French vintners. One day, in 1976, he is informed by American expatriate acquaintance Maurice (Dennis Farina) that there is a lot of noise in the business about the Californians now producing some seriously good wines. Spurrier journeys to the Napa Valley, finds the rumors are true and brings the California wines to Paris for a nose-to-nose blind tasting against France’s finest in “Bottle Shock.”
This amiable bit of Americana tries too hard to cover too many plotlines, relationships and characters. The result is an uneven effort that should have concentrated on its focal point how some lowly California wines overwhelmed the thought-to-be invincible French cru in a blind tasting by French wine experts!
Instead of aiming at the now famous “Judgment of Paris,” a staggeringly important event that turned the international wine world on its ear, director Randall Miller, with his team of coscribes Miller, Jody Savin, Ross Schwartz and Lannette Pabon does not know the meaning of not exploring every story avenue. As such, the seminal event the challenge, the discovery and the historic tasting takes the back seat to other plots.
Besides Spurrier’s groundbreaking journey to America in search of grape, we are saddled with several storylines that dilute what could have been a vintage wine film. Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman), the owner of the struggling Chateau Montelena, is on the verge of developing a perfect wine but may lose the farm, so to speak. He is in constant, often physical, conflict with his handsome, surf bum son, Bo (Chris Pine), who, like all us girls, just wants to have fun. Then, there is Gustavo (Freddy Rodriguez), the son of Mexican immigrants who has an incredibly well-defined understanding of the grape and is working his own secret batch. Of course, where would we be without the babe, Sam (Rachel Taylor), who is there for the sexual tension between her, Bo and Gustavo. Add Eliza Dusshku as local bar owner, Joe (there’s a minor theme of chicks having guy names), who plays a pivotal role in saving the day.
There are other plot directions but these several are given nearly as much shrift as the actual vintner event of 1976, diluting the film like cutting wine with water. The actors are amiable enough, especially Chris Pine (the next Captain James T. Kirk in the next year’s J.J. Abrams “Star Trek”). I would like to have more of Alan Rickman as the wine connoisseur and showman, Steven Spurrier. I always appreciated the actor’s droll wit and found him a bit wasted here.
The lovely Napa Valley locations make me want to visit and have a taste or two of some fine American wines. I give “Bottle Shock” a positive, with reservations, C+.
British Steven Spurrier (Alan Rickman, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Sweeney Todd") wants to be taken seriously by the French Wine Federation. His little Parisian wine shop, a self-proclaimed 'Academy of Wine,' only ever seems to have one customer, though, the American owner of the limo service next door. Maurice (Dennis Farina, "You Kill Me," TV's "Law and Order") may only perpetually taste Spurrier's wines instead of buying them, but it is his idea which will catapult his friend into viticultural history in "Bottle Shock."
Perhaps inspired by the success of "Sideways," cowriter (with wife Jody Savin, based on a screenplay by Ross Schwartz)/director Randall Miller ("Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing & Charm School") has taken the exciting true life story of a 1976 blind taste testing in which the French unwittingly declared two Napa Valley wines superior to their own and turned it into an atonal hodgepodge. The central story, that of Spurrier and his contest, is terrific, as is the fictional character of Maurice, but the filmmakers felt compelled to let us get to know the California wine makers, and while the cultural differences between Californians and the French in 1974 would seem a natural inclusion, the Barrett family, owners of the Chateau Montelena whose Chardonnay came out on top, are given too many family dynamics and story offshoots which dilute the vintage. Most egregious is the treatment of the character of Gustavo (Freddy Rodríguez, "Poseidon," "Bobby"), the son of a Mexican immigrant who works for the family and is an up and coming vintner. He's an expert. He's dispensable. He's a love interest. He's dropped for the lead with no evidence of consequence. He's got a great wine being tasted at the Parisian event. We never learn how it fared.
In the Napa Valley, long-haired surfer dude type Bo Barrett (Chris Pine, "Smokin' Aces," the new Captain Kirk in 2009's "Star Trek") moans when his dad, Jim Barrett (Bill Pullman, "You Kill Me") states that their chardonnay must be racked again, an unprecedented fifth time. Bo doesn't care that the wine isn't clear. Bo actually doesn't care about much but living from day to day and having a good time. When their new intern, Sam (Rachael Taylor, "Transformers," "Shutter"), arrives, Bo's astonished to discover Sam is a good looking blonde, but Sam proves to be a hard worker and no easy pickup. Clearly she's meant to be good for Bo and when he asks if she thinks he's a loser she holds out hope for him that makes him determined to turn himself around. It's Gustavo's amazing cabernet, however, that seduces Sam. Learning that Chateau Montelena is almost broke, Bo drives to his mom's country club and hits her up for the funding needed to obtain some extra barrels, enraging Jim. The Barrett saga picks up briefly with the true life incident of their product turning brown due to Jim's almost impossible perfectionism in allowing no oxygen to interact with the wine. The Barretts don't know the cause and Jim gets drunk and arranges to have all 500 cases hauled away and dumped. Bo and Sam hunt down an expert who figures out the cause, but they're too late. Time for fictional character, bar owner Joe (Eliza Dushku, TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Wrong Turn"), another woman with a man's name, to come to the rescue (Joe's the type of bartender who keeps $50 bottles of wine hanging around - in 1974, when Chateau Montelena's Chardonnay was considered expensive at $6).
Meanwhile, Bo and Sam have been driving the English wine snob to various vineyards and Bo further enrages Jim by slipping Spurrier two bottles of their Chardonnay to take back to France (Jim is convinced Spurrier only wants to make the Americans look bad). Jim cuts Bo off. He also fires Gustavo for having produced his own wine while working for the Barretts. OK, so we're supposed to get the idea that Jim is pigheaded, but he only seems displeased by shows of initiative. Then there's the outdoor boxing ring where Jim and Bo settle their other disputes. Sam's so clearly earmarked for Bo, that her (much more convincing) attraction to Gustavo is treated like a wine commercial (dusk's beautiful magic light plus great grape equals sex).
Chris Pine is OK as the likable, puppy-doggish Bo, but the more experienced Pullman isn't gruff enough for his character's conflicted actions. He's soft and ineffective. Taylor does what she can with an objectified role (Miller even uses her for a wet t-shirt type entertainment for the vineyard workers). Freddy Rodríguez seems the most like a real person of the California bunch. Rickman's wonderful with his mournful voice and misunderstood intentions and his pairing with Farina is a surprisingly good one - the refined Brit and the crassly commercial American (kudos to the costumer who located Farina's suit for the tasting event).
The final tasting lacks the tension it should have had. The vintage Time magazine article included in the press notes makes mention of several embarrassing comments made by the distinguished panel - an identification of the wines for the audience may have made this scene play more humorously.
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